A Milton Friedman Revival

Bloomberg columnist Caroline Baum laments that monetarists have “followed Milton Friedman the grave.” Monetarist, of course, is a term used to identify those who agree with the ideas of the great free-market economist who died in 2006. But I see neither those ideas nor their adherents going to the grave. Indeed, the experience of this crisis is proving that Milton Friedman’s ideas were right all along, and I can see them gaining favor.

Two of Friedman’s most famous ideas in the macroeconomic sphere were (1) that monetary policy should follow a simple policy rule and (2) that discretionary fiscal policy is not useful for combating recessions, and indeed could make things worse. Both ideas have been reinforced by the facts during the recent crisis.

The first idea is reinforced by the evidence that the crisis was brought on by the failure of the Fed to keep following the rules-based monetary policy that had worked well for 20 years before the crisis. Instead, it deviated from such a policy by keeping interest rates too low for too long in 2002-2005. But Caroline Baum wonders whether the Fed should now just print a lot more money and buy more mortgages or other securities. That might sound like a monetarist solution, but Friedman did not believe in big discretionary changes the money supply. Rather, he advocated a constant growth rate rule for the money supply. I doubt that he would have approved of the rapid increase in the money supply last year, in part because he would have known that it would be followed by a decline in money growth this year. He always worried about monetary policy going from one extreme to the other and thereby harming the economy. That is why the Fed should be clear and careful as it brings back down the size of its balance sheet, which exploded during the crisis.

Friedman’s idea about the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy is being reinforced by the growing recognition that the discretionary fiscal stimulus packages did little good. Forty years ago, in a famous debate with Keynesian economist Walter Heller, Friedman said “The fascinating thing to me is that the widespread faith in the potency of fiscal policy… rests on no evidence whatsoever. It’s based on pure assumption. It’s based on a priori reasoning.” It was bad news that policy makers in Washington did not heed those words in the past few years as they embarked on massive fiscal stimulus packages. But it’s good news that many more are heeding those words now.

About John B. Taylor 117 Articles

Affiliation: Stanford University

John B. Taylor is the Mary and Robert Raymond Professor of Economics at Stanford University and the Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He formerly served as the director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, where he is now a senior fellow, and he was founding director of Stanford's Introductory Economics Center.

Taylor’s academic fields of expertise are macroeconomics, monetary economics, and international economics. He is known for his research on the foundations of modern monetary theory and policy, which has been applied by central banks and financial market analysts around the world. He has an active interest in public policy. Taylor is currently a member of the California Governor's Council of Economic Advisors, where he also previously served from 1996 to 1998. In the past, he served as senior economist on the President's Council of Economic Advisers from 1976 to 1977, as a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1991. He was also a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers from 1995 to 2001.

For four years from 2001 to 2005, Taylor served as Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs where he was responsible for U.S. policies in international finance, which includes currency markets, trade in financial services, foreign investment, international debt and development, and oversight of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He was also responsible for coordinating financial policy with the G-7 countries, was chair of the working party on international macroeconomics at the OECD, and was a member of the Board of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. His book Global Financial Warriors: The Untold Story of International Finance in the Post-9/11 World chronicles his years as head of the international division at Treasury.

Taylor was awarded the Alexander Hamilton Award for his overall leadership in international finance at the U.S. Treasury. He was also awarded the Treasury Distinguished Service Award for designing and implementing the currency reforms in Iraq, and the Medal of the Republic of Uruguay for his work in resolving the 2002 financial crisis. In 2005, he was awarded the George P. Shultz Distinguished Public Service Award. Taylor has also won many teaching awards; he was awarded the Hoagland Prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching and the Rhodes Prize for his high teaching ratings in Stanford's introductory economics course. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his research, and he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society; he formerly served as vice president of the American Economic Association.

Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1984, Taylor held positions as professor of economics at Princeton University and Columbia University. Taylor received a B.A. in economics summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1968 and a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University in 1973.

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